With the theatre industry severely impacted by COVID-19, actors and creatives are making considerable efforts to support theatres. Various fundraising initiatives have sprouted up. In the spring, theatres’ YouTube channels broadcast recordings of their productions from previous years.
While these recordings were well-attended by virtual audiences, as a longtime live theatre attendee I don’t do well with prerecorded material anymore. With Zoom emerging as a major communication tool, theatres have sought to utilize it to answer to audiences’ preferences for live programming. Lockdown Theatre in association with the Royal Theatrical Fund (RTF) is one such entity, offering live table readings with distinguished actors. Their first livestream was A Bit of Waiting for Godot, directed by Jonathan Church. Narrated by Joanne Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) and starring Robert Lindsay (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, My Family) and Michael Palin (Vanity Fair, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), the livestream raised over £35,000 (or $40,000) for the RTF.
Lockdown Theatre and RTF returned this past Sunday afternoon with a live table reading of Act One of Noël Coward’s comedy, Private Lives. The ticket price was £35 or roughly $44. Directed again by Jonathan Church, the cast consisted of celebrated actors Robert Lindsay, Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility), Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones), and Sanjeev Bhaskar (Unforgotten).
Private Lives was an excellent selection for a livestream because 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Coward’s West End debut. In the play, Elliot (Lindsay) and his young wife Sybil (Clarke) are on their honeymoon at a hotel. Coincidentally, his ex-wife Amanda (Thompson) is next door on her honeymoon with Victor (Bhaskar). The two ex-spouses discover this fact, and realize that they still have feelings for each another despite how volatile their three-year marriage was.
Because this was a table reading, a couple of things were changed to adapt the performance to the format. The cast members took turns narrating the movements that would take place in a stage performance, including instances when a character enters or exits and setting the scene. They were all adept at shifting into narrator mode, without impacting the flow of the act. If you listen to radio dramas or if you’ve seen productions with small casts, you might be used to that already.
In an agreement with the Noël Coward estate, this livestream is not available online after the fact. Thus there’s an element of excitement knowing you and the other livestream audience members are the only ones catching the performance.
I watched the Zoom performance with my cell phone, which meant that four is the maximum number of webcams or actors that I could see on my screen. With the play’s cast of four, that was no problem at all. The only truly distracting aspect of Zoom is when viewers are using the chat feature during a performance and typing something like, “Hello, just joining in.” Luckily, that didn’t happen very often. Any live programming – theatre, television, virtual streaming – is bound to have some source of distraction.
The quality of the video feed on the cast’s webcams was solid. I only remember one brief instance when the audio seemed to cut out for about two seconds early in the reading. Otherwise the audio quality held consistently throughout the session, and one could really make out the smoothness and richness in Thompson’s voice as she sang a bit of “Some Day I’ll Find You.”
All of the actors were close to their webcams, giving it an intimate feel. It’s an opportunity to see everyone’s facial expressions in great detail as well. You could really make out the emotion in Clarke’s and Thompson’s faces in the scenes where they were crying. Also, in other intense moments such as when Elyot persuades Amanda to leave, Lindsay and Thompson leaned in toward the cameras. Lindsay even beckoned to her, his hand coming straight “at” the viewer.
Gestures could also be more casual, as in the cocktail segments. I recall laughing at seeing the actors holding up and sipping from their respective cocktail glasses. Clever timing is needed, though, as when Bhaskar offers a glass to Clarke. Thompson’s and Lindsay’s glasses were similar during their exchange, but Clarke’s glass differed markedly from the Bhaskar’s. It didn’t break my concentration in the moment. Rather it provided insight on the creative process the actors engage in.
Audiences typically see a play, television show, or film in its final form. Sometimes on social media we’ll get photos or short clips of a table reading as networks build hype for the newest season of TV show. But very rarely do we have an opportunity to see a table reading of a full act or episode, as we have here with RTF. I hope that RTF will continue to put on more livestream events in the near future.
Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson will appear with other renowned actors including Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, and Patricia Routledge in A Marvellous Party on September 20. It’s a celebration of Noël Coward’s plays and music and his enduring legacy in the arts.